Istanbul Cats: 7 Best Things To Know About Cats In Turkey

Are you planning a trip to Turkey? You are in for a treat! This nation is home to a wealth of ancient ruins, amazing cityscapes, and stunning natural landscapes, and that’s without mentioning the food.

To discover the best Turkey has to offer, make sure you read my post The Best Places To Visit In Turkey.

But there’s one thing about this transcontinental country that – if you are anything like me – you will love. The cats. There are lots of cats in Turkey and if you are a cat lover, you may think you have landed in paradise.

Cats are literally everywhere in Istanbul and across Turkey. They hang out in shop doorways, sit on chairs in restaurants and sprawl out across hotel foyers.

For useful guidance on how to plan your trip, head over to my post Everything You Need To Know Before Visiting Turkey.

Istanbul cats

Istanbul cats reside in churches and mosques: we saw a cat roaming around carelessly at Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. There are cat sanctuaries in large archeological sites such as Ephesus. There even are cats in museums, such as the archeology museum of Antalya.

Checking in at a boutique hotel in Istanbul? Sorry, you can’t sit on that chair: the cat is sleeping there. Want to have a drink at a bar? You will have to share your stool with the cat.

Cats of all shapes, sizes, and colors roam Turkey’s city streets and they aren’t bothered by tourist crowds or onlookers. In fact, most of them enjoy the attention and pets (and treats) they get. We certainly had a good time cuddling and photographing the many cats we encountered!

It’s true to say that cats are the stars of the show in Turkey, but just why are there so many of cats in Istanbul and in Turkey? Being the cat lover that I am, I investigated a bit and here’s what I found out.

Why Are There So Many Cats In Turkey?

Cats are popular pets around the world, but in Turkey, they seem to run the place. The estimated population of Istanbul cats is of about 125,000. Taking cats with owners into consideration, the number of Istanbul cats rises to 200,000 cats in total.

Some people say there could be up to a million stray cats in Istanbul alone!

In Turkish the sight of a sokak kedisi or “street cat” has been part of everyday life for centuries and because of that long history there are a variety of different stories which explain the origin of Turkey’s love of cats.

Cats have been living alongside humans for thousands of years. Felines were thought of as sacred to the ancient Egyptians and evidence of domestic cats in Greece dates back to 1200 BC.

Istanbul cats

It’s possible cats were brought to Turkey through trade in the region. The Greek, Phoenician, Carthaginian, and Etruscan traders all passed through the area and took felines with them to the south of Europe.

Cats have been part of life in Turkey for a long time but many believe it was during the Ottoman Empire that they got their special status in society. During the rule of the Ottomans, sultans thought so highly of cats that they kept a private menagerie of exotic cats at the Topkapı Palace.

It was during these times that most of the houses and buildings in Istanbul were made out of wood and there was a high number of rodents living in the houses.

Not only that but as a major trading port, masses of grains and wheat passed through Istanbul and with them a number of rats and mice. With the number of rats rising, cats were brought in to catch the rodents and stop the spread of diseases.

Since the days of wooden houses and rodent catching, Istanbul cats have maintained a high prominence in local society.

This superstar status may have also been helped by the fact that Islam is Turkey’s most prevalent religion. In fact, love of cats is seen as a sign of faith in Islam.

Cats are held in high esteem in Islam thanks to their cleanliness. They are believed to be ritually clean and often dubbed the quintessential pet by many Muslims.

According to the hadith, the collected sayings and actions of Muhammad, the prophet urged cats to be treated with kindness. Muhammad himself was reported cutting off his sleeve when having to pray, so as not to disturb a cat that napped on his robe.

Another story suggests that a cat saved the prophet from an attack by a poisonous snake, and the prophet was so grateful that he gave cats the ability to land on their feet.

Who Takes Care Of Istanbul Cats?

With all of those cats on the prowl in Turkey, somebody has to look out for their well-being.

There is a traditional profession whose job is to look after stray animals. Starting in the days of the Ottoman Empire, mancacı were put in charge of making sure that strays were fed. They would sell food by calling out “manca” in the street and people could either buy food to feed the animals or give the seller money to feed the cats and dogs themselves.

The sellers became such a part of society that they have appeared in books and articles, but the tradition finally died out in the 1970s.

Istanbul cats

Today, the care of cats in Turkey is mostly down to well intentioned locals and volunteer organizations.

Most cats have a pretty good life in Turkey – at least, better than they have in most countries (including Italy where I live). Locals leave out food and water for stray cats to keep well-fed. It’s not uncommon to see bowls of dry cat food scattering the pavements in local neighborhoods.

In fact, it’s not uncommon to walk around Istanbul and other cities in Turkey and spot people distributing dry food to the cats. We did a guided tour in Istanbul and our guide carried dry food with her to feed the cats she met along the way.

Similarly, we saw guides feeding the cats in Ephesus and other archeological sites.

Feeding Istanbul cats has become such a part of life that in recent years the local government has introduced vending machines to provide food for the stray cats (and more recently dogs too). Locals and visitors alike simply put a few coins into the machine to make sure that all the animals get a good meal.

Communities have set up little cat houses for strays to sleep in but there’s not enough room to keep all of the country’s strays warm during cold winter nights. Some people choose to raise money to help protect the cats. Students often bask in their spare time to raise money for cat homes.

When it comes to veterinary care, it’s usually down to well-intentioned individuals again who often rescue stray cats (and dogs) in need, help them find them a home, pay for their veterinary care and more. One of them is Sarper Duman, who has a massive following on Instagram and became known for playing the piano with one of his cats.

However, officials in big cities such as Istanbul have been busy working on efforts to help with the health of street cats. One example is the Vetbus, a mobile clinic roaming local communities to provide essential care such as sterilization and vaccinations.

More recently, laws have been implemented that mandate the sterilization of Turkey’s stray animals in an effort to keep their numbers at bay.

cats in Turkey

Not All Cats In Turkey Are Treated Well

Turkey has so many cats that it can be hard to make sure all of them are well-treated and have been fed.

During our trip, we came across various cats that we sick and uncared for, unfortunately. In less affluent neighborhoods, locals often can’t afford taking care of stray cats, which means they are not sterilized (and their numbers increase exponentially) and lack access to veterinary care.

The sheer number of cats in Istanbul has led to the prevalence of disease. One study in 2011 revealed that a high number of street cats were infected with tapeworm, feline immunodeficiency, and feline leukemia.

Some experts have stated that the feeding of stray cats by locals has made things worse.

Some studies suggest that the feeding attracts groups of cats which leads to diseases spreading easily. The argument is that healthy cats share water and food bowls with infected cats and then get sick themselves.

In fact, many believe that actually the best thing to do to help stray cats anywhere in the world is to sterilize them, and that’s the first expense that should be accounted for, perhaps even before feeding them.

Are There Laws That Protect Cats In Turkey?

A law passed in 2021 has helped to protect the thousands of stray and domestic cats in Turkey.

Previously, cats were defined by Turkish law as being a commodity, something that was strongly criticized by many animal rights activists who argued that it allowed for those who have brought harm to cats to be given lenient punishments.

The reclassification now gives cats the status of a living being in the eyes of Turkish law and has helped to protect them.

Cats in Turkey

The new law means that anybody who has been cruel to cats can now face a jail sentence of between six months to four years.

But Turkish people have long since been averse to cruelty against cats. Nationwide outcry and protests have arisen out of claims of animal abuse.

Various accounts of abuse to cats have been widely condemned, one incident led to the promise of a full investigation by Turkey’s interior minister and another saw a Japanese national deported after admitting to animal abuse.

Movies And Series About Istanbul Cats

With such a prized position in Turkish society, it’s not surprising that cats have popped up across the country’s media.

The award-winning 2016 documentary Kedi follows the lives of cats in Istanbuul and is described as a “must-watch” for all cat lovers.

The 2015 children’s book Searching for a Cat in Istanbul by Japanese writer Etsuko Shundo is the tale of students from Istanbul Japanese School searching for a stray cat.

There are endless youtube videos of Istanbul cats being complete pests. The one I never tire of is that of the cat at an Istanbul fashion show a few years ago. He (or she?) completely stole the show walking down the catwalk. There are also viral videos of cats at Istanbul metro stations watching passengers go by.

Istanbul cats

There Even Are Hashtags For Istanbul Cats!

With the rise of social media and the internet cats in Turkey have taken on a new level of fame. The felines make for the perfect shot of life in Turkey and regularly appear on many travelers’ social media feeds.

Snaps of stray cats on the backdrop of an ancient temple are ideal Instagram fodder, and I only know too well!

Searching the hashtag #istanbulcats or #catsofistanbul on Instagram, Twitter or TikTok brings up streams of cute cats posing for photos in the sunny streets of Turkey. It’s a fun way to share the life of Turkey’s cats as they recline in various places, on bus seats, in university classrooms, and even inside the Hagia Sophia.

cats in turkey

One particularly popular cat in Turkey that has made it big on the internet is Gli. Gli lived in Hagia Sophia and became so well-known that she has her own Wikipedia page and was petted by the then US President Barack Obama on a visit to Turkey in 2009.

Sadly Gli passed away in 2020 but by then had become so famous that an Instagram account set up to follow her life had amassed a following of 109,000 people.

Dogs In Turkey Are Taken Care Of Too

With the rise of Turkey’s cat population on social media and the newly instated policy which enshrines cats’ lives in the law, there has also been some good news for Turkey’s stray dogs too.

The same law that protects cats also covers the protection of dogs which means that anybody that has been accused of abusing or mistreating dogs can also face jail time of up to 4 years. The law also means that police are able to set up animal protection units in order to respond to incidents of animal harm.

There are also a number of charities that go out into the outskirts of Istanbul and other cities and feed the stray dogs that live in the countryside and continue efforts to sterilize the strays in order to control their numbers.

Further Readings

If you are planning a trip to Turkey, these posts are definitely a must read:

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Discover what you need to know about Istanbul cats - via @clautavani

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